Visiting Gershom Scholem

A trip to Israel’s National Library on the scholar’s 30th yahrzeit

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Dr. Zvi Leshem in the Gershom Scholem Library (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Dr. Zvi Leshem in the Gershom Scholem Library (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

“Scholem was a fanatic book acquirer. He was a stalker of books,” says the soft-spoken Dr. Zvi Leshem, librarian at the Gershom Scholem library, marking 30 years to the day to Scholem’s death on February 21.

With its scalloped lights and book-lined walls, the Gershom Scholem library at the National Library in Jerusalem is a fitting successor to the scholar’s Rehavia study. It currently holds some 40,000 books, of which 5,000 are considered rare or exceedingly rare.

Although Gershom Scholem is most well-known as a Jewish cultural figure and the definitive scholar of Jewish mysticism and Kabbala, he was also the first head librarian of the nascent National Library’s Judaica collection, from shortly after his aliya in 1923 until 1927 (he was appointed as a professor at the Hebrew University in 1925). Scholem the librarian revolutionized the use of the Dewey Decimal System for Judaica, creating a new hybrid method that is still used in many Judaica collections today.

His book collection, considered the finest on the subject of Jewish mysticism in the world, was also always a Zionist endeavor. Even before making aliya, Scholem decided to donate his collection to a yet-to-be-built National Library in the future Jewish State and attempted to persuade other Jewish scholars in Germany to donate theirs as well. At a time when most German Jews were pro-assimilation and anti-Zionist, Scholem’s idea to found a scientific scholarship of Jewish subjects in the Holy Land was considered radical and won him few friends.

By the time Scholem made aliya, he had amassed over 2,000 works, and by his death in 1982, he had over 25,000. Well aware of the difficulties in acquiring and maintaining such a massive collection, Scholem once wrote in notes for a lecture he gave to mark the donation of a book collection in the 1960s: “The National Library was built on two factors: 1) the careful work of librarians, building brick by brick from what happens to come in; 2) the insane work of the collector.”

Gershom Scholem carefully cultivated his collection and his “insane work” is easily noted. A yekke born and bred in Berlin, Scholem was systematic in cataloging his volumes, filling handwritten notebooks, “Notes on my Library,” with titles and summaries and lists of names of those who borrowed books — later scratching them out after the books’ return. In one such notebook, the first several pages are lists of totals of books per category.

Gershom Scholem (photo credit: Gershom Scholem archive, ARC. 4° 1599/38-39, Archives Department, The National Library of Israel)
Gershom Scholem (photo credit: Gershom Scholem archive, ARC. 4° 1599/38-39, Archives Department, The National Library of Israel)

Scholem’s spirit permeates the room. “Here’s Scholem’s desk and chair,” says Leshem in an offhand manner. “We have his typewriter around here somewhere, too.” But it is in the books themselves where he is most tangibly felt, from his signature ink stamp, indelibly marking each volume he acquired with Scholem’s brand, to his ex libris label, which reads “From Gershom Scholem’s library in Jerusalem.”

Even more precious than these labels are the volumes that were taken apart at Scholem’s behest and rebound with blank pages for his copious notes, painstakingly handwritten in a mishmash of Hebrew, German, English. These volumes are truly one-of-a-kind.

Other works of note in the collection include “Eleh Shemot,” a treatise on Rebbe Nahman of Breslov that Scholem wrote for his friend Martin Buber, a Breslov fan, on his jubilee birthday, and which was dedicated “during the [fictitious] Hebrew year of Martin Buber” (mem-resh-tet-nun).

Likewise, Scholem’s students honored him on his 80th birthday with a complete bound bibliography of his works, from 1915 to 1978. Scholem, ever the librarian, manually updated the book with his further publications until his death.

And there are of course volumes that are rare, regardless of their connection to Scholem. Leshem points out two such works that are perhaps the most unique in the world: One, the “Tsidkat Hatsadik,” printed in Lublin in 1902, had been censored by students of the author, Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin. Scholem’s volume is the only known work that contains the original censored portion, which was copied out by hand by one of Rabbi Tzadok’s disciples in the last blank pages of the volume. This book was recently used as the basis of a new complete edition of Rabbi Tzadok’s work.

A particularly touching story surrounds “Em Habanim Smeicha,” written and published in 1943 by Rabbi Yissachar Teichtal in the Budapest Ghetto. The rabbi had been originally anti-Zionist. While living in the ghetto, however, he decided the Holocaust was a punishment for Jews who had ignored the Zionist call. Before being murdered by the Nazis, the rabbi inscribed this volume to a friend who was meant to make aliya.

In 1937 Scholem had written a list of works he still needed to acquire in order to complete his collection. He later regretted publishing it, as the list drove up the prices of those missing volumes, but he did eventually purchase almost all the missing volumes. Today, Leshem and his team maintain and expand the definitive Jewish mysticism collection, where scholars from around the world can sit on comfortable chairs and continue Scholem’s scholarly work.

On March 12-13, the National Library will host a conference marking 30 years to Gershom Scholem’s death. In addition to the scholarly lectures, there will be talks on Scholem’s political connections and literary influences, as well as a musical performance. For more information call 972-2-6585027.

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